1994 was the second of Merle Haggard’s three albums for Curb Records. It was released four years after Blue Jungle, the biggest gap between projects of Haggard’s career. James Stroud was brought in to produce the album, in an attempt to reverse Haggard’s declining commercial fortunes. At the time, Stroud was one of Nashville’s hottest producers and he seemed to be trying to modernize Merle’s sound for 90s audiences, many of whom were new country fans, introduced to the genre by Garth Brooks. Gone for the most part were the jazz influences that characterized his later releases for Epic, replaced by more mainstream and radio-friendly arrangements. The result was a very solid album, but it was unfortunately not enough to revitalize Merle’s chart career. He had two big strikes against him: his advancing age in an era when more emphasis as being placed on youth and good looks, and his record label, which put little effort into promoting the album. Curb didn’t even want to foot the bill for decent cover art. Many have commented that the album’s cover resembled a tombstone.
Only one single was released from the album, “In My Next Life”, the story of a farmer and his wife looking back on a lifetime of disappointments, written by Max D. Barnes. This is my favorite song on the album, and it probably would have been a Top 10 hit had it been released a few years earlier before veteran artists were swept off the charts. It topped out at #58 and was the second and final Merle Haggard single released by Curb.
Also written by Max D. Barnes is the album’s opening cut “I Am an Island”, which is given a Jimmy Buffett style treatment. It’s a decent song, despite being a bit light on the lyrics, but it’s not really a good fit for Merle, who seems a little out of place singing it. Barnes teamed up with Merle to write the excellent “Way Back In the Mountains” and the filler track “Solid As a Rock”, which would be covered a year later by George Jones and Tammy Wynette for their reunion album.
Merle indulged his penchant for Dixeland jazz on two numbers: the self-penned and very enjoyable “What’s New In New York City” and “Set My Chickens Free”, a good but not great co-write with Richard Smith.
The album closes with an ill-advised remake of Merle’s 1977 hit “Ramblin’ Fever”. This version, with its heavy-handed production, sounds as though it were made to appeal to line-dancing fans. It’s just not impossible to improve on the original recording and Haggard and Stroud really shouldn’t have tried. I probably would have enjoyed it if I’d never heard the original.
In the end 1994 was, like its predecessor Blue Jungle, a commercial disappointment that underscored the sad reality that Haggard’s hitmaking days were behind him. While it does not quite reach the very high standards set by Merle’s earlier work, it is a very good album. The production seems a bit dated here and there but for the most part it has aged well. This is another one of those albums that fans may have overlooked, and as such it is another good opportunity to hear something “new” from Merle while he was still in good voice.